Born in Brooklyn in 1943, John Henry Redwood attended the University of Kansas briefly before joining the United States Marines. Following his service in the military, he earned his undergraduate degree from St. John’s University in New York, and his Master’s Degree from Fordham University. He was at work on a doctoral degree in religion from Fordham when his interest in theater eclipsed his scholarly ambitions.
Initially successful as a singer and actor, Mr. Redwood eventually turned to playwriting because he was frustrated by the lack of good roles for Black performers. The Old Settler, his best known play, was first performed in 1998.
He is also the author of No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs, which premiered in 2000.
At the time of his death in 2003 at age 60, Mr. Redwood was scheduled to appear in Looking Over the President's Shoulder, a one-man play by James Still about a White House butler who worked for four presidents.
His obituary in Playbill quotes the thumbnail biographical note the author wrote about himself for one production of The Old Settler: "John Henry, having once studied for the ministry, believes that being a good actor or dentist or golfer is only one's avocation. One's vocation is being the best human being one can be."
The play takes place in the “tenement apartment” of Elizabeth Borny in Harlem, New York, in 1943. Both the temporal and physical locations are important for an understanding of the characters and actions on stage.
In 1943—the year of the playwright’s birth—the United States was fully engaged in World War II. Physically fit young men were expected to be in uniform and serving the war effort. But Husband, the play’s sole male character, remains defiantly civilian, a fact noted and criticized by his main antagonist, Quilly, Elizabeth Borny’s sister. On the other hand, Lou Bessie, whom Husband initially wants to marry, is eager to see her man join the Army because of the salary and benefits that accompany enlistment.
From Husband’s point of view, the nub of the issue of military service is racial bitterness. As he says, “I believe if they put me between one of those Japanese soldiers and one of those German soldiers and gave most white folks here a gun and told them to shoot, most of them would shoot me.”
Thus, the play’s deeply personal struggles for individual connection, fulfillment, and love take place against a broad social background of conflict and racial hostility. The personal does not reflect the political in the playwright’s vision of 1943. Instead, it stands in sharp contrast with it.
The physical setting of Harlem is also of major importance. All the characters have migrated to this mecca of African-American culture from the deep South. They have come North for a variety of reasons: economic need, the search for urban excitement, a personal quest for love. But though their motivations are different, Harlem is their common destination. Lou Bessie speaks for one large segment of Harlem “immigrants” when she says, “I used to hear about Harlem all the time when I was a little girl and I knew . . . that as soon as I could I was coming to Harlem! . . . Parties, dances, shows, jazz, parades and music going on all the time. . . .”
In remembering her childhood impressions, Lou Bessie is looking back to the era of the Harlem Renaissance, a period of African-American cultural flowering that lasted from about 1919 until the mid-1930s. This “renaissance” was the creation of such authors as Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and Richard Wright, and such artists and musicians as Romare Beardon, Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington, and Eubie Blake. It transformed the image of Harlem in the national imagination from a run-down neighborhood in northern Manhattan to a showplace of artistic vibrancy and innovation—an alteration all the more miraculous given the long history of African-American social oppression and material want.
Of course, behind the glitter of this renaissance there remained the grit of everyday life lived by ordinary folks like Elizabeth Borny and her sister. For them Harlem has little magic. Instead it is a place where they were driven by economic necessity, and where they eke out precarious lives as domestic servants or short-order cooks. For Elizabeth, home is not Harlem, but the South of her childhood. As she says to Husband, “I’ve been thinking about [going back] . . . for a long time. . . . Used to be, every time I’d go back down home to Halifax, North Carolina, I’d have a hard time bringing myself back up here.”
Husband, too, is unhappy in Harlem, where he finds the crowding, the hurried pace of life, and the moral confusion deeply unsettling. Like Elizabeth, he is attached to his small-town roots, and longs to return.
This contrast between the romantic Harlem of the “Renaissance” and the quotidian Harlem of daily life is captured in the atmosphere of Elizabeth’s tenement apartment. Even though it is situated smack in the middle of that fabled neighborhood—at Lenox Ave. and 135th Street—there is little glamour to be found inside its walls. As the stage directions tell us, “the furniture appears old and worn.” And the best view visible from its windows is into the rooms of patients in Harlem Hospital, across the street—a vista of suffering and weakness not likely to inspire much hope or joy.
Despite the dreariness, however, the apartment shows the imprint of spiritual resilience. “The rooms are well kept and neat. . . . There are lots of pictures of family and friends on a table.”
The person who lives here may suffer from economic hardship, but she isn’t impoverished. The cleanliness shows her pride and dignity, and the pictures of friends and family show a richness of heart.
As the first scene begins, Elizabeth and her sister, Quilly, are returning from a funeral. The two immediately make sharply contrasting impressions on us with their first appearances. Elizabeth, 55, is dressed entirely in black, while her sister, 53, sports a “white dress with a gold sash and some medals affixed to her chest. On her head is a white fez, with a gold emblem of a scepter on the front and a gold tassel.”
These differences in appearance point to underlying differences in outlook and temperament that persist and develop throughout the play. No sooner do they come through the door than they begin to bicker—more or less their constant mode of conversation. They squabble about everything from household chores to proper deportment at a funeral. But the most serious source of friction between them is the newly-arrived roomer in the apartment, Husband Witherspoon, a young man of 29.
Quilly, who has just separated from her unfaithful spouse, has also recently moved in with Elizabeth, and she resents the presence of a third party in the house. For one thing, she sees Husband, a total stranger, as potentially dangerous. “He could be a rapist or something,” she asserts. For another, she fears the scandal his presence in a house with two single women will cause among her friends at the church.
Elizabeth dismisses all these objections as the product of her sister’s orneriness and remains calmly determined to make the young man feel welcome and comfortable in her home.
Husband arrives at the tail end of this spat, and we learn the reason for his presence in Harlem. He has come north in search of Lou Bessie, a girl from his South Carolina home town whom he wants to marry. When he finds her, he plans to take her back to Frogmore and resume the life he knows best. As he tells the sisters about the progress of his search, we learn about the misadventures of a country boy at sea in the big city. He has trouble with lost luggage, with riding the subway, and with thieves. Eventually he learns that Lou Bessie has taken a job as a domestic on Long Island, but he has forgotten to ask his informant the telephone number of the house she works in.
Husband decides to go back out and get that information. When he leaves, Quilly tells Elizabeth that she “sure done gone sweet on that boy. . . . He done touched one of your buttons. That’s what it is.” Elizabeth indignantly denies the charge, but at that moment Lou Bessie herself appears, interrupting their argument.
Lou Bessie quickly makes it apparent that she is not the girl of Husband’s imaginings. For one thing, she has changed her name to Charmaine, an emblem of the deeper self-reinvention she is pursuing in Harlem. “[T]his is a new life,” she declares, “in a new and exciting place.” A place where she plans to live permanently. Far from returning to Frogmore with Husband, she intends to convince him to settle in New York, and to change his name, too. He will become Andre, and—using the money he has inherited from his mother—they will open a beauty salon and barber shop. They will become high-living Harlemites, frequenters of the dance halls, night clubs, and restaurants she fantasized about as a child.
She leaves breezily for the Savoy Ballroom, where she expects Husband to meet her later that evening. On her way out, she inquires about one of the pictures she finds on a table. Quilly explains that it is a snapshot of her and her husband, a fact at which Elizabeth obviously bridles. After Lou Bessie has left, Elizabeth demands to know how long that picture has been on display. As the first scene ends, she threatens to throw it out the window if she ever sees it outside Quilly’s bedroom again. With this moment of bitterness, the playwright clearly points to some source of conflict between the sisters deeper than styles of dress and household chores.
Scene 2 opens with Elizabeth seated in her living room looking out the window. It is 2:25 a.m. Quilly arrives and again begins criticizing Husband, who is out chasing after Lou Bessie somewhere in Harlem.
Husband arrives a few minutes later and describes his evening’s odyssey:
I met Lou Bessie at that Savoy Ballroom. . . . [T]hen she took me to all these different places. . . . Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, La Moor Cher. . . . The Renaissance Ballroom and . . . . Small’s Paradise. . . And . . . the bar of the Braddock Hotel behind the Apollo. . . . And . . . that Renaissance Ballroom.
He has hit all the high spots, and has even won a meal for two at Whimpy’s restaurant, but somewhere along the way he has lost track of Lou Bessie / Charlaine. It seems she ditched him in the Chicken Shack, though not before declaring her dissatisfaction with his entire countrified identity: his clothes, his hair, and, of course, his name. Husband is shocked and disappointed by Lou Bessie’s transformation into “Charmaine,” and, in spite of her best efforts, he declares himself determined to hold onto his real name and his real self.
After he and Elizabeth share their fond memories of life in the South, Husband proposes that she join him for the free meal he has won at Whimpy’s. Elizabeth initially refuses the invitation, saying, “I’ve only been out of this house past eleven o’clock once a year for years and that was for . . . service at the church on New Year’s Eve. . . . I don’t even know what it looks like out there at this time of the night.”
But when Husband reflects sadly on how many times he’s had to eat alone since coming to New York, she declares, “I understand about eating alone . . . and being alone.” Prompted by this shared emotion, she quickly decides to join the young man for his 3 a.m. meal.
Scene 3 begins later that morning, at 8:20 a.m. Quilly is on the phone, frantically trying to track down her missing sister, who has not come home yet from her outing with Husband. When Elizabeth enters with Husband, she and Quilly have yet another quarrel. Quilly, who had no idea that her sister went out to eat with Husband, accuses Elizabeth of being thoughtless and irresponsible for not telling her, while Elizabeth rejects the idea that she has to answer to her younger sister in any way for her behavior. Husband enters sheepishly, and he and Elizabeth acknowledge that they have had an enjoyable evening together.
At this moment of burgeoning tenderness between them, we hear a loud knock on the door—Charmaine demanding to be let in. She is in a rage because Husband has been seen with another woman, eating the free meal that she thought was her due:
I got to hear from my friends about you coming into Whimpy’s with some other woman . . . some ‘Old Settler’ and eating breakfast at my expense. I’m out there trying to set things up for us and you’re running around . . . with some ‘Old Settler.’ As a matter of fact, they called her an ‘Old, Old, Settler,’ laughing their asses off.
Elizabeth objects to this rough talk, and demands that Lou Bessie leave her house. As the price of his delinquency, Husband will have to repay Lou Bessie by riding the train with her to her job on Long Island. Before he goes, he asks Elizabeth the meaning of the term Lou Bessie used three times in her tirade: “Old Settler.” According to Quilly, it’s “what folks up here call a woman pushing forty who hasn’t been married and don’t have any prospects.” And an “Old, Old Settler,” we are led to infer, is a woman who has sunk even deeper into emotional quick sand.
The final scene of Act One begins with Husband’s return from his long, confusing, and ultimately revelatory journey to Long Island and back. He tells how Lou Bessie behaved badly on the train, “fussing” at him and making a spectacle of herself. So obnoxious was her behavior that Husband was actually “glad when she got off.”
But he made the mistake of staying on board, and wound up riding to the last stop. Once there, he had to figure out how to get back—a process that wound up wasting virtually the whole day.
Having had plenty of time to reflect on Lou Bessie’s behavior, he seems disillusioned. He has learned that she spends one or two nights a week sleeping with a man named Bucket, the father of her illegitimate child. She claims that this arrangement is purely practical—it provides her with a place to stay on her nights off, a getaway from the room provided by her Long Island employers. There is no physical intimacy between her and Bucket on these evenings, she insists—though Husband is openly skeptical about that.
The more Husband reflects on Lou Bessie’s transformation, the more he realizes he no longer cares much for her. Especially when he compares her to Elizabeth. Their previous evening in Whimpy’s stands out in his mind as a moment of exceptional happiness: “Now, all I want is to keep that feeling for as long as I can. So, I’m asking that you let me spend some more time with you like we did last night.”
Elizabeth is moved, but the difference in age between them fills her with uneasiness. “Don’t play with me,” she begs. “I’m too old for that.” Husband persists, and kisses her. “No, this ain’t right,” Elizabeth protests. But he kisses her again, and this time she kisses him back, though still saying, “This ain’t right”—the final words of the act.
Act Two begins two weeks later with Elizabeth trying to coax Quilly into joining her in singing an old Gospel song from their youth. As usual, Quilly is feeling peevish, this time about an injustice suffered by a fellow church member at the hands of obnoxious white railroad officials and passengers during a Mother’s Day trip to the South. By contrast, Elizabeth is bubbling with happy anticipation of the treat Husband has promised her—dinner somewhere special.
Quilly tries to deflate Elizabeth’s balloon, warning her that she is, “too old for that boy . . . too old to be out there trying to pop your fingers . . . acting like some of those old fast teen-age girls on the streets.” In the middle of this admonition, Husband enters “dressed in a loud, colorful zoot suit with a wide-brimmed hat, chain and all. . . revealing his newly processed hair [a conk]. There is silence.”
The ladies’ speechlessness results from Husband’s outlandish appearance. “Zoot” suits were popular among African-American and Mexican-American young men in the 1940s. They featured baggy-legged trousers with tight (“pegged”) cuffs, and long jackets with wide lapels, and wide, padded shoulders. A broad-brimmed hat, often with a feather, and a key or watch chain dropping from the belt to the knee and rising back to the pants pocket completed the look of expressive exaggeration central to the zoot aesthetic.
Husband’s “conk” adds the final touch to his Harlem hepcat makeover. According to The American Heritage Dictionary, a “conk” is, “A hairstyle in which the hair is straightened, usually by chemical means. Also called process.” Etymologists speculate that the word itself is derived from “congolene,” the actual substance used to straighten curly hair.
As we soon learn, this transformation is in large part Lou Bessie’s doing. This is the new look that she has wanted for Husband all along, and Husband has mistakenly assumed that Elizabeth too would be smitten by it. But instead, what she sees is the influence of her rival, and with it evidence of Husband’s all too pliant and immature nature. “This is a mistake,” she says, “and when you get to be my age, you can’t be making too many mistakes. You got too much Lou Bessie on your mind.”
Chastened by Elizabeth’s criticism, Husband repents his foolish masquerade, and then reveals the real surprise of the evening: an engagement ring. With this promise of a new life before them, she and Husband head out for a night of happiness in Harlem.
The next morning, Elizabeth and Quilly resume their customary quarreling, but this time the stakes seem higher, and the bitterness stronger. Quilly taunts Elizabeth about her future sex life with Husband: “What you going to do when his nature gets up two and three times a night . . . and day? You haven’t used it in so long . . . that you don’t even know if it works. . . . You too old to have babies.”
Elizabeth reproaches Quilly for her ingratitude and cruelty, reminding her sister that it was she who came north to earn money to support the family down south; that it was she who brought Quilly to New York after their mother’s death and cared for her. “And after you tore my heart out and shamed me before the whole world . . . I still loved you and swallowed my pride and came looking for you to make peace. Because you was my sister.”
With that last accusation, we come to the core of the enmity that has run between these women throughout the play. And this is what it is: Herman, Quilly’s runaway husband, was originally Elizabeth’s fiancée. But Quilly stepped in, and married him instead. Quilly defends her actions by claiming that Herman didn’t love Elizabeth. But Elizabeth rejects this defense, pointing out that Herman’s feelings make no difference: “You was my sister and you knew I loved him! That meant you should have kept your hands off.”
As Elizabeth sees it, Quilly is now trying to come between her and Husband just as she did between her and Herman. Quilly, however, dreads the idea of abandonment. When Elizabeth and Husband move back to South Carolina, she will be “left up here alone. You’ve known since we were little girls that I was always afraid of being alone.” But Elizabeth tries to reassure her: “The good don’t die alone, Quilly. God always sends someone from the other side to greet us.”
The next scene takes us twelve days forward, to the day when Elizabeth and Husband have planned to leave New York for their new life in Frogmore, South Carolina. Elizabeth is on the phone with Husband making last-minute arrangements, when Lou Bessie bangs on the door. Once again she has come in high dudgeon, this time for a no-holds-barred face-off with Elizabeth. Lou Bessie takes the offensive, insulting Elizabeth about her age and her sexual inexperience. Elizabeth retorts by accusing Lou Bessie of being a gold-digger, interested only in Husband’s inheritance, and prepared to desert him when anything better comes along. As Lou Bessie leaves the apartment she boasts that, “I can get Husband any time. . . . And you know what, Old Settler? . . . Just to show you I can, I’m going to take him.”
Scene 4 begins later that day, on the evening of the departure for Frogmore. Elizabeth says her final good-byes to Quilly, attempting a reconciliation before she leaves. She then settles down to wait for Husband, who is to pick her up in time to catch the 9:20 train out of Penn Station. As she waits, the stage directions tell us, “The lights should begin to change indicating passage of time into early the next morning.” Slowly we realize that Husband has failed to come, and we assume that he has betrayed Elizabeth with Lou Bessie.
Eventually he arrives, abashed and apologetic, explaining that he was waylaid by Lou Bessie, but that now he is ready to catch the morning train for South Carolina. But during the long night’s wait, Elizabeth has come to a realization: marrying Husband really would be a terrible mistake. “I just don’t want to wake up one morning and look in your eyes and see that you want to be somewhere else”—a moment all too easy to imagine for a woman who will be 70 when her husband is in his early forties. Despite his protestations to the contrary, she returns his ring and sends him away, ending her dream of autumnal happiness.
As the play ends, the sisters are alone on stage. Quilly, having witnessed Elizabeth’s heartbreak, has now become her consoler. When words fail, she begins to sing “Didn’t it Rain,” the Gospel song about Noah’s Flood from earlier in the play. Finally, the old melody lures Elizabeth out of her solitary misery, and as the lights darken on the end of the play, she joins her sister in a hymn that contemplates calamity and survival.
Elizabeth is the Old Settler of the play’s title. What exactly does that term mean? Quilly explains that it is a name for a middle-aged woman with no prospects of marriage, someone who is settling down to old-age as a spinster. “To settle” has other shades of meaning as well. It is to compromise, to accept an offer, especially one below one’s expectations—to agree on half a loaf. It also means to subside or sink, as old houses settle into the earth.
All these meanings help to illuminate Elizabeth’s character. Her life has been marked by self-sacrifice and loss, a fact she seems to proclaim on her first entrance, dressed all in black. She is like the character in Chekhov who makes a similar first entrance, similarly dressed. When someone asks her why she is in black, she answers, “Because I’m in mourning for my life.” Elizabeth might well make the same statement.
As a young woman, she traveled to Harlem to earn money for her needy southern family. But Harlem was never the beacon of hope and excitement for her that it was for many other African Americans of her generation. Instead, it was a place of exile, where she was separated from family and friends and from the life-shaping scenes of her childhood. It was a place and a life she settled for.
Then, after her mother’s death, she became responsible for her younger sister, feeding and sheltering her in New York, helping her to find a job, overseeing her transition to life in the North. And her sister’s response to all this generosity was to seduce Elizabeth’s fiancée.
Now, at age 55, she seems reconciled to a quiet slide into old age and death—to settling or sinking into the last phase of her life. But that all changes when Husband comes along. Suddenly it seems possible for her to recapture her unlived life, to experience through his vitality and down-home charm all the joys she lost—or never knew. No longer will she have to settle for the half loaf. Instead, a full existence seems to beckon.
What Elizabeth wants is to live the life that she settled for losing years earlier—the life of a wife and lover, happily restored to the small-town world she left as a young woman. But in the course of the play she learns that some damage can’t be repaired, and some broken things can’t be fixed. Because life isn’t a fairy tale, she can’t simply start over, as if time hadn’t passed and she hadn’t become an “Old Settler.”
In allowing herself to believe that she could attain the unattainable, she commits an act of folly, and so opens herself once again to loss and pain. But she also manages a few weeks of deep happiness—more than she has known in decades. The anguish that follows may be a heavy price to pay for her idyll, but at least she will have something bright to look back on as the years accumulate—a time when she recklessly refused to settle. And, in the end, the loving folly of her brief affair with Husband opens the door to reconciliation with Quilly. As Elizabeth says earlier in the play, “The good don’t die alone. . . .”
This young man from Frogmore is oddly-named. It’s as if he were some sort of abstraction in a morality play about marriage and family instead of an individual with his own particular needs and quirks. Certainly, given his role in the play, the name is appropriate. Lou Bessie and Elizabeth both view him as a potential husband; and just as a husband can’t be a husband without a wife, this character seems unable to function without being attached to a woman.
As Quilly tells him,
Used to be, any time things didn’t go your way, your mama was there to wipe your tears. Now, Mama’s gone and you’re up here chasing after [Lou Bessie] and things ain’t going right. So, you latch on to my sister . . . old enough to be your mama. . . .
Throughout the play, Husband bounces back and forth between Elizabeth and Lou Bessie, like a wandering moon seeking a planet to orbit. At one moment, he’s conking his hair and sporting a zoot suit because that’s what Lou Bessie likes; at another, he’s buying an engagement ring for Elizabeth. On the night he’s supposed to leave for Frogmore with Elizabeth, he hooks up with Lou Bessie and loses track of the time.
Husband is constantly looking to others to chart his course rather than steering his own way through life. On the one hand, he is attracted by Lou Bessie’s youth and physical appeal; on the other he is seduced by Elizabeth’s maturity and goodness. What he needs to realize is that neither the shallow gold-digger nor the comforting Old Settler is right for him. Instead of recognizing and acting on the obvious problems with each relationship, he slides from one to the other as chance and feeling dictate. It is only thanks to the painfully earned wisdom of Elizabeth that he avoids the grotesque mistake of marrying a woman old enough to be his mother.
Without delving too deeply into the Oedipal implications here, we can at least say that, like the king of Thebes, Husband doesn’t really know himself. And he also leaves us wondering who he is. When Elizabeth sends him away at the end of the play, what will he do? Will he head back to Lou Bessie? Will he return to Frogmore? Will he explore some third course? The playwright leaves the questions unanswered, and so Husband remains an open file.
Quilly’s fear of being alone is the moving force behind her main action in the play: to hold onto her sister by driving a wedge between Elizabeth and Husband. As such, it is one of the main elements in her character.
Paradoxically, Quilly’s fear of loneliness is the product of her own tendency to drive people away. She alienated Elizabeth by stealing her fiancée, and then she turned herself back into a single woman by throwing her husband out the door after she caught him cheating with the neighbor girl. She is in a constant state of resentment against everyone she comes across: white people in general and her employer in particular; the woman who shares the party-line phone in their apartment; the relatives of the dead woman whose funeral she has just attended. And every other character in the play.
This irritability stands in sharp contrast to Elizabeth’s composure and good will, as if Quilly were determined above all not to “settle” as her sister has. Her flamboyant outfit at the beginning of the play—the uniform of the Ladies of the Golden Scepter—proclaims a soul on the march, unwilling to pass unnoticed in life’s parade.
But despite all her bravado, she too is becoming an Old Settler—which is why she sees so clearly the emotional danger that Elizabeth is risking with Husband. She understands the need that lies behind her sister’s reckless romance, but she can also analyze the folly of such a relationship.
In some ways, this is a replay of what happened when Quilly stole Herman. Then, Quilly looked at her sister and her man and saw something that wouldn’t work. Quilly sees the same thing now. And just as Quilly benefited in the past from the breakup, so she stands to benefit now. Then, she got Herman. Now, she gets Elizabeth.
The difference is that in predicting unhappiness for Herman and Elizabeth she might well have been wrong, but she allowed selfishness to convince her she was right. This time, she is almost certainly correct in what she foresees between Elizabeth and Herman, but now her vision is guided as much by love of her sister as by concern for herself.
She is the opposite of Elizabeth. As opposed to the latter’s self-sacrifice and self-restraint, Lou Bessie is all ego and appetite. Loud, assertive, materialistic, she is in love with the bright lights and fast-times of Harlem. Having already borne an illegitimate child with the mysterious Bucket, she seems likely to repeat herself, given her regular evenings in his bed. And there may be other children by other fathers, guys like Black Sammy, West Indian Archie, King Padmore, and Detroit Red—the gangsters she runs with on her Harlem nights.
Lou Bessie is pursuing the dreams of her childhood—the visions of “parties, dances, shows, jazz, parades, and music” that infatuated her as a girl in Frogmore. She has no use for the traditions of her past, and little interest in Harlem’s literary and artistic riches. Instead, she is enthralled by the shiny surfaces of life, and greedy for instant fulfillment.
We note that her child remains back in Frogmore, leaving her free of the daily burdens of motherhood. She does send money and clothes to her daughter, but she also uses her as an excuse to divert Husband from his travel plans with Elizabeth. As Husband explains,
I was on my way to that barber shop like you told me, but then I ran into Lou Bessie. . . .She asked me to take some clothes with me down home . . . for her daughter. . . Then . . . I kind of . . . stayed for a while . . . and time kind of . . .
Time does fly when you’re sorting baby clothes. In any case, it’s clear that Lou Bessie will make use of all the resources at her disposal—her youth, her sexual appeal, her baby—to get what she wants.
People are instruments of her will. As Elizabeth says, “You don’t want Husband, you want his money. But it ain’t just that you’ll take his money; you’ll suck all the life out of him . . . use him up. Then you’ll leave him flat and empty.”
Like Husband, Lou Bessie remains a question mark at the end of the play. Will she continue to use people as tools for her own gratification? And will Husband be one of them? What evidence is there that she will ever change?
Harlem vs. the South. This play shows us African Americans living their lives between two cultural poles: the traditions of the southern homeland, and the social and economic opportunities of the northern metropolis. Its characters are pulled between “Frogmore” and Harlem, between the familiar manners and customs of the small town, and the alien usages of the big city.
This is a conflict familiar to every immigrant group in American history, the tug-of-war between loyalty to the “old country”—Ireland, Italy, Poland, Greece—and new allegiances to the United States. The longing for old country ways and the awkwardness of greenhorns are standard sources of comedy and pathos among African Americans no less than Americans of European descent.
Thus, in The Old Settler, Quilly mocks Husband as a “gator-tail-eating geechee.” “Geechee” is an insulting term for someone from the Carolina coast who speaks the Gullah dialect, or some other non-standard form of English. A gator-tail eater, of course, is somebody who eats the tails of alligators. So Quilly ridicules Husband for being a clod from the old country who speaks an outlandish tongue and eats outlandish food—two insults heaped on foreigners for as long as there have been foreigners and insults. And when Elizabeth uses the phrase, “I reckon” in her showdown with Lou Bessie, the latter immediately jumps on the words with withering scorn: “Reckon? Reckon? I haven’t heard that since I left from down home. Do you still say ‘over yonder?’ I bet you still keep a slop-bucket under your bed.”
Just as powerful as the comedy of old-country buffoonery is the sentimental longing for old-country comfort. The sights and sounds of nature, the strains of Gospel music, the bonds of home and family stand in stark contrast to the alien landscape of the city and its rushing hordes of strangers. This is why there are Irish bars, Jewish delis, and soul-food restaurants: to bring the old country to the new; to ease the everlasting American project of immigration and assimilation.
Love vs. Age. One of the characters in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales wears a ring bearing the inscription, “Amor vincit omnia.” This is Latin for “Love conquers all.” We have always longed to believe this bit of romantic consolation, but The Old Settler suggests it just isn’t so. There are some obstacles love cannot overcome, and one of the most immovable is a vast difference in age between lovers—especially between older women and younger men.
Why is this so? The play suggests that the May-December romance can be mutually fulfilling in the short run, as it is for Husband and Elizabeth during the month or so of their courtship. Indeed, pretty much any affair can be agreeable provided no long-term attachment is required.
The problem arises when Elizabeth, prompted by Quilly, tries to visualize life with Husband over the years. When she is 65, he will be 39; when she is 75—a certified senior citizen—he will not yet be 50. Can erotic love endure when one partner is approaching senility, while the other is still in the prime of life? Elizabeth ponders this question during the long night when Husband fails to arrive, and decides the answer is “no.” The idea that Husband will one day wake up and wish she weren’t there is unbearable to her—and given human nature, all but inevitable. So love—romantic love at least—does not conquer all.
But let’s remember that the ring in Chaucer’s tale was worn by a nun. Surely that raises the possibility of another kind of love, what Christians call “agape” as opposed to “eros”—spiritual rather than carnal attachment. At the end of The Old Settler, this kind of love is vividly in evidence in the new bond of affection that has developed between the two sisters. Love finally does conquer the ocean of bitterness that lay between them at the beginning, ironically demonstrating another Christian insight: in the end, the flesh is weak, but the spirit is willing.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.